VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis’ recent trip to Latin America has rekindled questions about whether he endorses socialism, or even communism.
The gift of a “communist crucifix” from Bolivia’s president Evo Morales and uncertainty over the Pope’s response fueled controversy for several days, while Morales told the Associated Press after the visit that he thought that the Pope’s emphasis on a world without exclusion amounts to socialism.
“I don’t know whether it’s communism, but it is socialism. He’s talking about community, about living in harmony,” Morales said July 10. He added: “I feel like now I have a Pope.”
But is it true? What does Pope Francis really believe?
A closer look at the Pope’s speeches and writings reveals an answer that is both complex and nuanced.
On one hand, the Pope has criticized greed and the idolatry of capital on numerous occasions, most recently in a lengthy, colorful July 10 address to the Second World Meeting of the Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The congress discussed challenges facing the poor and the marginalized.
“An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind,” the Pope lamented. He alluded to a remark of St. Basil of Caesarea, which described the unfettered pursuit of wealth as “the dung of the devil.”
“Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home,” the Pope’s speech continued.
Francis also raised eyebrows in his 2013 apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” in which he criticized theories which assume that economic benefits for businesses and investors will “trickle down” the economic ladder to the poor and middle classes.
Such views, the Pope said, express “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
Do these criticisms of unregulated capitalism and the idolatry of money amount to an endorsement of socialism? Not really, says Gregory Weeks, a Latin America specialist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Pope Francis is “not advocating for the government to take over everything,” Weeks told the Associated Press. He cautioned against conflating warnings on the harms of capitalism with a push for socialism.
In fact, the Pope has directly rejected Marxism. He says that some of its tenets regarding the poor may sound similar to those of Christianity, but he firmly rejects attempts to equate the two.
“The Marxist ideology is wrong,” he told Italian Vatican analyst Andrea Tornielli in a late 2013 interview when questioned about his economic views.
Francis has said that he finds it “strange” that people make these accusations against him.
“If I repeated some passages from the homilies of the Church Fathers in the second or third century, about how we must treat the poor, some would accuse me of giving a Marxist homily,” he said in an October 2014 interview.
In an interview earlier that year with the Roman daily Il Messagero, he said that while concern for the poor is a mark of the Gospel and Church tradition, rather than an invention of communism.
“I must say that communists have stolen our flag. The flag of the poor is Christian,” he said, recalling the Beatitudes and the story of the Final Judgment in Matthew 25. “Poverty is the center of the Gospel. The poor are at the center of the Gospel.”
So if Francis has been open in criticizing aspects of both capitalism and socialism, what system does he espouse? The answer to that question is less clear. So far, he has not laid out a concrete or thorough vision of a detailed system that he supports.
But one clue may be hiding in the Pope’s own experience of growing up in a lower middle class family in Argentina, a family that could afford very little luxury or extra spending, but where basic needs—such as housing, food and clothing—were met with dignity, and one parent—his mother—could stay at home and be “the heart” of the family.
Viewing the Pope’s words through the lens of his personal history would suggest that he may be thinking not so much about a global economy, but a family economy. In this view, a just society is one that allows for the majority of people to enjoy the situation in which he grew up: In other words, a national economy that is focused on providing for basic needs, centered around the family.
References to the family are common in Pope Francis’ addresses, and are often linked to his comments on the economy.
“The family constitutes the best ‘social capital’,” the Pope said in Ecuador during his most recent trip. “It cannot be replaced by other institutions. It needs to be helped and strengthened, lest we lose our proper sense of the services which society as a whole provides.”
“Those services which society offers to its citizens are not a type of alms, but rather a genuine ‘social debt’ with respect to the institution of the family, which is foundational and which contributes to the common good.”
Whether this is the correct lens through which to understand the Pope remains to be seen. But the Pope may have a chance to directly address the matter when he visits the United States in September.
The topic came up during the papal flight from Latin America back to Rome July 12.
Journalist Anna Matranga, of the US-based CBS News, asked the Pope about his message that the global economic system often imposes a profit mentality at any cost in a way that works to the detriment of the poor.
“This is perceived by Americans as a direct criticism of their system and their way of life,” Matranga said.
The Pope responded that his words criticizing the global economy are not new.
“I heard that there were some criticisms from the United States,” he said. “I heard about it but I haven’t read about it, I haven’t had the time to study this well, because every criticism must be received, studied, and then dialogue must ensue. You ask me what I think. If I have not had a dialogue with those who criticize, I don’t have the right to state an opinion, isolated from dialogue, no?”
“Yes, I must begin studying these criticisms, no? And then dialogue a bit with this,” he said.
It is possible that the Pope could use his visit to the United States as an opportunity to clarify the various perceptions of him that still persist in the public narrative.
But with a Pope as unpredictable as Francis, it’s anyone’s guess what he will say.